Chapter 11




Prison Intellectuals and
the Struggle for Abolition




Mechthild Nagel


What happens when radical prisoners’ writings are introduced into a college curriculum? I wish to offer the perspectives of “regular” college students and imprisoned college students. This article discusses the emergence of prisoners’ neo-slave narratives and how radical education and prison experience have shaped the thinking of political prisoners. How can outside/inside organizing be strengthened and what might be the role of prison education in this process?


The prisons have made me what I am. The prisons have made me a revolutionary, the prisons have made me progressive and political, the prisons have made me a human being.

-Carl L. Harp


On my recent trip to Mali to study prisons and penal abolition, a judge told me the following: “I used to be very tough on crime, sentencing every offender to long prison terms. One day my son was stopped on the street and told, ‘Your father is a thief! He is stealing people.’ Then I had a change of heart and am now rethinking punishment.” He went to the International Conference on Penal Abolition (ICOPA IX) in Toronto in 2000[1] to learn from activists around the world how they have stopped prison expansion and are working towards penal reform and overhaul of the criminal justice system. Whether living in the global North or in the (post)colonial South, prisons are a preferred site for meting out punishment; in fact, prisons engulf us psychically in a way that Foucault identifies as “carceral society.” It is difficult to imagine a society that would completely replace their Western penal code—replete with police, surveillance, and prison apparati—with traditional or transformative caring communities. From the new South Africa to the First Nations’ sentencing circles, prison is part and parcel of the punishing codex. How do we create a movement that breaks that logic, the “race to incarcerate”[2] poor people, especially Latino/as and African Americans, on “the slave ship that doesn’t move?”[3]

In this paper, I wish to address the ways that prison intellectuals have been instrumental in shaping our imagination vis-ą-vis abolitionist strategies. In particular, I am interested in the way that Black political[4] prisoners write neo-slave narratives; writing as “slaves of the State” aka as ‘Afrikans in Amerikkka’ (e.g., Abu-Jamal 1995, Acoli 1998; N’Zinga 2000, NOBO 1995, Assata Shakur 1987, Forde/Mattis 2001, Abdul Shakur 1999). The imprisoned writer and social critic connects the radical movement against slavery of the nineteenth century with a concerted struggle against today’s criminal injustice system. This critic and revolutionary also reflects on the challenges of border-crossings and on forging community ties which tear down the inside/outside walls of separation and isolation: Protest actions, such as “Millions march for Mumia” in Philadelphia, 1999; the Critical Resistance Conferences attended by thousands of young people; the Jericho Movement to free all U.S. political prisoners; the rallying cry of “Education, not Incarceration” of the organized youth of color in Brooklyn—these are examples of an emerging consensus against the criminalization of poor people and people of color; and these are just a few examples of actions coordinated by prisoners and ex-prisoners. In this article, I wish to reflect on ‘outside’ attitudes about prisoners and contrast them with ‘inside’ reflections by prisoners. But I worry about their iconic status, as heroes and martyrs; it’s important to show that many of them struggle to become abolitionists and thus fight the system that physically and psychologically entombs them, often subjected to total segregation (cf. Elijah, 1995). The point I wish to make is that there is nothing self-evident about prisoners becoming involved in restorative justice and penal abolition causes, rather it is an evolving, protracted conscientization process.

Teaching about Prisons

For a number of years, I have introduced students to writings by Mumia Abu-Jamal and other political prisoners. I am a white, recent immigrant who teaches social philosophy at a public university in Central New York, which is surrounded by more men’s prisons than colleges and universities. In my general education classes, we also read essays by noted Critical Race theorists who stress the white supremacist legal tradition. We discuss the contradictions embedded in the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which set slaves free at the same time that it re-enslaves them as convict-laborers when found guilty of a crime. The result of these discussions? White students tend to overlook de facto and de jure segregation, feeling temporarily sorry for Blacks and other people of color, but quickly recover their gut prejudices about who deserves to be uplifted and who ought to be demonized. A fairly typical response of students, who study Abu-Jamal’s and other radical political prisoners analyses, notes the racism in the prison system but launches a vicious attack on prisoners who benefit from a free college education paid for by taxes (sic). The ideology of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” is very prevalent and under no circumstances should the condemned be given “special rights.” One cannot expect any positive contribution from “them” and one should not waste any valuable resources on prisoners. Such passionate rejection of rehabilitative services is instructive for prison who swim against the tide of political sentiments of the white working and middle-class college student body and popular sentiments at-large. Perhaps such students would think differently, if they had attended a recent conference “What good can come out of prisons?” which highlighted college level education, art, parenting and restorative justice as viable alternative ways to the punitive ‘correctional’ (sic) model of justice.

What is the status of prisoners’ rights? Is it true that “they have it given to them”? My civilian escort at a super-max prison in Central New York echoes this sentiment. She overheard guards complaining that prisoners had more rights than the C.O.’s (correctional officers). When I ask her to explain and give examples, she became silent. Civilians, who supervise college programs, and C.O.s alike resent the imposition of free college classes to a select group of men (15 out of 1200!) and often do everything in their power to sabotage liberatory education which address radical notions of freedom, equality, and social justice and which refuses to churn out well adjusted prisoners who accept their status as offenders and in turn repent their crimes. One of the veiled forms of sabotage is a sit-in by education program officials who are eager to learn about philosophy![5]

Recent laws are eerily reminiscent of the infamous Dred Scott Supreme Court decision, which declared that “the black man has no rights that a white man is bound to respect.” The threshold for demonization continues to sink. In McCleskey v. Kemp (1987) the Supreme Court accepted the fact that racial prejudice in the allocation of the death penalty is the price to pay for upholding this barbaric practice. Not unlike my students, the majority of the high court is capable of evacuating logic and argue for a racist death penalty “as if there were no Civil War and no chattel slavery … [A]s if there were no Dred Scott decision, no Medgar Evers, Little Rock, nor ‘Bombingham’” (Tibbs, quoted in Abu-Jamal 1995, 17).

Before they read Live from Death Row my students believed that prisoners, of course, ought to have no rights, and death row prisoners, particularly, ought to suffer for their crimes. After reading Abu-Jamal’s works (and discussing the travesties of his own court case), most students shifted from a position of “no rights for prisoners!” to a reformist position that acknowledged that the criminal justice system is somewhat flawed and that prisoners deserve some human rights protection. During one fall semester (in 1999), several students ended up writing to Mumia and his counsel. Some began to question the (racist, capitalist) ideology of criminal justice, and a few students have become abolitionists.

To dream of radical, community-based, approaches to transformative justice (Sullivan, Tifft 2001) is a rare feat—even in prisons. When I taught a political philosophy course in a medium security prison, I ended the course with a screening of Battle of Algiers, Frantz Fanon, Black Skin White Masks and Angela Davis’ speech on penal abolition (at the ICOPA IX conference). We discussed colonialism, racism, and the ideological function of prisons. When we questioned how many people should be excarcerated from total institutions, at first, their answers didn’t differ from the SUNY Cortland students, insofar as the prisoners accepted the fact that one deserved to be punished by long prison sentences for particular crimes. But one student thought about it and suggested that three percent of the total prison population should remain confined, which is about the percentage of people who never leave New York State prisons. (This is the same figure often cited in abolitionist circles, when it comes to the question of what to do with the difficult offenses, such as serial murders and sex crimes. The point is that most abolitionists would want to hold on to some form of total institution, rather than excarcerate all prisoners.)

What I learnt from that exchange is that there is nothing organic or natural about transforming into a radical critic of the carceral society. In this context I will turn to a discussion of slave and radical neo-slave narratives. I will highlight the work of two prominent writers who became incarcerated due to their political affiliations: Mumia Abu-Jamal and Assata Shakur. I wish to contrast their writings with prison letters and autobiographies of politicized prisoners, George Jackson and Tiyo Attallah Salah-El.

Prison Intellectuals

As John Wideman notes in his introduction to Abu-Jamal’s book Live from Death Row, we need to differentiate between the ideological tenor of contemporary prison writers and 19th Century critics of slavery. In the ante bellum years, slave narratives distinguished between servitude (south) and freedom (north). Escape from slavery was the main goal to attain total political freedom. 19th Century abolitionists didn’t necessarily have a class analysis (Garrison was anti-union); and, for complex reasons, the white labor movement was not involved in the abolitionist cause. Wideman notes that the equation of prison with slavery and the state of release with freedom dominates the genre of contemporary heroic (ex) prison stories and thus brings up parallels to slave narratives. By contrast, we see an emergence of radical neo-slave narratives that accomplish something quite different. 20th Century radical prison intellectuals have an acute awareness of imperialism, capitalism, racism, and sexism and have written how prisons and the death penalty are part of the logic of that web of oppression. They have a complex understanding of the notion of freedom and do not reduce it to liberty garnered by the individual heroic person who escapes slavery. As Wideman points out, even if Abu-Jamal is freed tomorrow, he does not enjoy positive freedom (right to housing, education, meaningful employment, etc.) in a capitalist, racist society (Abu-Jamal, xxxiv). However, Wideman does not point out that Abu-Jamal evolved into a fierce critic of the prison industrial complex. Abu-Jamal, a former Black Panther, acknowledges that only when his appeals were denied that his belief in the American justice system was shattered:

Perhaps I’m naēve, maybe I’m just stupid—but I thought the law would be followed in my case, and the conviction reversed … Even in the face of the brutal Philadelphia MOVE massacre of May 13, 1985, that led to Ramona Africa’s frame-up …, my faith remained. Even in the face of this relentless wave of antiblack state terror, I thought my appeals would be successful. I still harbored a belief in U.S. law, and the realization that my appeal had been denied was a shocker (1995, xviii-xix).


Similarly, the Puerto Rican independentistas were at first incredulous when they faced obstacles in the court of law after their capture. Like Abu-Jamal, they understood the intersections of imperialism and racism, but underestimated the wrath of the system which declares them enemies to be neutralized:


We had incredibly naēve views about what the justice system was like. Even though one’s against the system, the basic myth of democracy was still there. “‘Ellos no pueden hacer eso!’ [They can’t do that!]” became a standing joke (Juan Segarra Palmer, cited in Jan Susler, 2000).


Several years ago, Abu-Jamal’s essays were commissioned for NPR but due to pressure by the Fraternal Order of Police and candidate Bob Dole, NPR declined to air these essays which are now available on CD and in a new book All Things Censored. Abu-Jamal has faced several months of disciplinary custody for writing his books Live from Death Row and Death Blossoms. His death sentence has been vacated but he continues to be caged on death row, rather than in general population. Even though he could gain personal freedom for making certain political concessions, he refuses to do. He is relentless in his critique of Black churches in his recent book Death Blossoms. He resists the standard slave-narrative that stresses individual heroism—indeed he barely talks about his case, to the great surprise of my students. Angela Davis, too, finds this noteworthy. After meeting him in October 1999, she says that he “thinks collectively. He said that he always thinks about himself in relation to others, never about himself. Even if he is able to win his case it would not be a personal victory.” Abu-Jamal also implored Davis to think about the parallels of their trials (i.e., the “Free Angela Davis!” campaign) and educate and mobilize people accordingly.[6]

As Abu-Jamal’s experience shows, prison conditions for these political prisoners (even when they are cause célŹbre) are particularly harsh. In a training session with a coordinator for volunteer services, i.e., a gatekeeper for prisoners’ access to higher education and religious services, I was told about “unruly” inmates (sic). The coordinator mentioned that one person had to be restrained and disciplined for talking about slave-like conditions during lunch hour—”and that was like yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre!” Over the years, criminologists and correctional personnel have analyzed the actions of six organizers who protested on Black Solidarity Day in SC Auburn in 1971 and subsequently were sent to SC Attica, where a mere six months later a prison rebellion erupted. They clearly were seen as masterminding the collective action. The Attica Rebellion was also sparked by the assassination of George Jackson, a Soledad Brother, whose prison letters were published a year earlier (and reissued by Jonathan Jackson, Jr., in 1994). In these letters, Jackson speaks of being a runaway slave, captured at age 18 (p. 4) and being a neo-slave (p. 111). His politicization is completed when he entered prison: “I met Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Engels, and Mao. . . and they redeemed me” (p. 16). He fights the prison system but refuses the mantle of hero, writing repeatedly to Angela Davis that he is not a nice person. Echoing the sentiments of Carl Harp (the motto of this article) and Oscar Wilde’s “Ballard of Gaol,” he writes to his lawyer a year before his murder:


This camp brings out the very best in brothers or destroys them entirely. But none are unaffected. None who leave here are normal. If I leave here alive, I’ll leave nothing behind. They’ll never count me among the broken men, but I can’t say that I am normal either. I’ve been hungry too long. I’ve gotten angry too often. I’ve been lied to and insulted too many times. . . . I know that they will not be satisfied until they’ve pushed me out of this existence altogether. I’ve been the victim of so many racist attacks that I could never relax again. My reflexes will never be normal again. I’m like a dog that has gone through the K-9 process (1994, 27-28).


As Tiyo Attallah Salah-El writes in his unpublished autobiography, once the prison authorities learned that he was a prison abolitionist, all of his privileges were taken away. Among other personal items his typewriter was destroyed in a daily shakedown of his cell (cage is in fact his preferred word and does not have the charming connotations of monastic cell), because they was seen as a political threat to the establishment. Salah-El has coordinated for several years the Coalition for the Abolition of Prisons, Inc. and has overseen the quarterly journal, Broken Chains (past editions are available on He writes explicitly about his journey towards prison abolitionism:


I did not become an abolitionist over night. It took years of reading, studying, and asking lots of questions. Having teachers such as Monty Neill and Howard Zinn leading me into new fields of study was the key factor which in turn was indeed a blessing. Reading the works of Marx, Homer, Cervantes—looking at the powerful paintings of Picasso, Chico Mendes, African, Native American and Mexican art—listening to the powerful and beautiful music of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, ..., Bach, List ..., all played a part in my development. My imagination soared. I gained an international perspective regarding politics and prisons. I became a dialectical dreamer with my brain reeling with visions and dreams of a radically new society founded on a total transformation in human relationships and the abolition of prisons (139).


Salah-El’s paper on abolition was read at the recent ICOPA X conference and was cited in a Nigerian newspaper that reported on the conference.

In Eyes of the Rainbow, by Cuban film maker Gloria Rolanda (1997), former Black Panther Party member Assata Shakur talks about her status as a 20th Century run-away slave—an apt self-description given the bounty for her issued by Governor Whitman; she recounts her jail term, at times spent in male prisons, where sharp shooters’ guns were trained onto her cell 24 hours a day. Her case won international attention, when a petition was sent to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in 1978. Shakur was broken out of prison by Marilyn Buck, Silvia Baraldini and Susan Rosenberg[7] in 1979 and now lives in exile in Cuba. In her autobiography Assata Shakur interweaves narratives of coming of age in the 1960s with accounts about the shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike, the several court trials she was subjected to, and the disregard for the law by the authorities at every stage. She understood the repression, the torture, the interrogation, and the blatant illegalities due to her status as political detainee. At the time of her arrest, she was active in the Black Liberation Army, but it was not till her confinement that she learnt about the ideological function of imprisonment. Confronted by a guard who ordered her to work, Shakur disobeys, “You can’t make me work.” The guard’s response was “No, you’re wrong. Slavery was outlawed with the exception of prisons. Slavery is legal in prisons” (64). Shakur re-read the 13th Amendment and realized that racism is part and parcel of the capitalist system.


That explained why jails and prisons all over the country are filled to the brim with Black and third world people, why so many Black people can’t find a job on the streets … Once you’re in prison, there are plenty of jobs, and, if you don’t want to work, they beat you up and throw you in the hole. … Prisons are part of this government’s genocidal war against Black and third World people (64-5).


Imprisonment radicalized her thinking about “aberrations” in the system. In a moving exchange with another prisoner, she shares her notion of “freedom”:


[I’d] rather be in a minimum security prison or on the streets than in the maximum security prison in here. The only difference between here and the streets is that one is maximum security and the other is minimum security. The police patrol our communities just like the guards patrol here. I don’t have the faintest idea how it feels to be free (60).


Assata’s autobiography, which chronicles her journey from childhood to being marooned in Cuba, is a very important example of a radical neo-slave narrative.

Inside/Outside Organizing

We need to create different models of community. Instead of participating in the marginalization of prisoners, we need to work hard to expand our notion of activism, of coalition building to include prisoners, who do not have access to email, toll-free phone calls, and privacy. As Angela Davis points out we need to avoid patronizing prisoners, and instead listen to prison intellectuals and pay attention to prison activism. Prisons are rife with tensions and organized resistance. Prison visitors and program volunteers need to be mindful of their role to contribute to prison reform and be a watchful eye when state repression occurs. It was a political prisoner, Jalil Muntaquim, who organized the Jericho Movement a few years ago; in the meantime it has grown into an international organization and has been able to get release for some of the 150 political prisoners/ POWs in the United States. Muntaquim has just been denied parole (July 2002) after serving almost 30 years in prison for his participation in the Black Panther Party. He is caged in one of the oldest prisons in the US, in Auburn, NY, where he has started a Lifer’s Committee.

In New York State, prisoners in all 70 state facilities prepared for a work stoppage for better working and parole conditions on January 1, 2000. Their organizing tool was the clandestine “Wake Up!!! Manifesto,” first circulated at SC Sing Sing. In SC Greenhaven, prisoners held silent meals in defiance and preparation for January 1. Prison officials worked hard to preempt the non-violent action, issuing lock-downs, after finding ‘suspicious’ gun powder (which may have well been planted by guards) and shipping key organizers to Upstate prisons. Some officials speculated that it was Sing Sing and Greenhaven prison volunteers who incited the prisoners to organize—another assault by the system on the prisoners’ intelligence! One of my students in an Upstate prison was punished to three months in the “box” (i.e., segregation) after he mentioned the “Wake Up!!! Manifesto” within earshot of a guard. The anonymous authors of the Manifesto charge:


Why should we be the raw materials in the DOCS [Department of Correctional Services] prison industrial corporation which only serves the interests of politicians to be elected into office, and to provide jobs for rural Northern New Yorkers? Why should we work to maintain the prisons as porters, cooks, plumbers, masons, welders, tailors, roofers, painters . . . or in any capacity necessary to keep DOCS prison corporation functioning properly? (cited in Gonnerman, 1999).


Indeed, prisons could not be maintained without the slave labor as a recent work strike demonstrated. As I prepare to teach in a supermax prison, I learnt that in June 2002, a two-week non-violent stoppage occurred at that prison, and civilian staff members were called upon to put in an extra four hours to take over the prisoners’ “job bids.” What are some of the creative strategiess to contest a carceral society and PATRIOT acts?



Yet, as abolitionist Fay Honey Knopp (1993) points out “[t]he issue of sexual abuse and how society responds to and punishes it is an abolitionist issue. …The issues for people of color and feminist issues are inclusive not separate tracts” (53). She implores feminists not to give in to the “caging mentality” and to work on providing alternative programs for sex-offenders. Several case studies of successful programs in the Bay area are featured in the abolitionist handbook Instead of Prisons; however, more attention needs to be paid by feminist advocates to the intersections of race, gender, and citizenship. There is very scant discussion of these issues in restorative or abolitionist literature.


In the final section, I will return to the activist dimension of teaching, in particular, teaching in prisons. Prison narratives have a long philosophical tradition, but few professional philosophers would consider assigning both the Apology and Assata Shakur’s autobiography in our introductory classes, even though both give a salient critique of the unexamined life, of justice, and of the existence of political prisoners. Both texts give us a tremendous opportunity to analyze the contrasting ideologies of statism and of revolutionary thinking.

Few of us consider the opportunity of teaching in prisons, even though rich philosophical discussions take place, and we have at least as much to learn from the men and women in prisons as they do from us “experts.” One such text that probes this issue in a compassionate way is The Soul Knows No Bars. It brings up interesting social issues and importantly humanizes the students and questions the cruelty of incarcerating them for a lifetime. Leder even steps outside the teacher role and becomes a prisoners’ rights advocate by seeking (and winning!) clemency for one of the students. Yet, the book is also fraught with problems; its author, a philosopher, is not in tune about “dishonest language[9]: He refers to the students as “inmates” instead of as prisoners, a jargon that minimizes the effect of “caging” and foregrounds the “residential” aspect.

The different chapters, which center around a particular philosophical theme, highlight prison life, inner city Baltimore street life, violent offenses, remorse, etc., precisely, “alien” experiences to the author. Leder uses philosophy not unlike Socrates who uses to the trope of the midwife when he probes his interlocutors. He ponders, “How did the men first get involved in criminal activity?” (p. 9), and thus he seems insensitive to the claims of innocence made by at least one of the students. In this context of teaching in a total institution, this Socratic method seems paternalistic, the dialogues are overly confessional, and Leder exploits the self-revelatory aspects by providing photo and biographical snapshots of each man (all lifers) who agreed to participate in the making of the book. I particular am troubled by the condescending tone in which Leder conjures up a psychological profile (“But as I got to know him better, I realized here’s a thoughtful man.” Or “If he still steals, it’s now mainly books for his shelf.”). I doubt that he would have received approval for his “phenomenological method” from his Institutional Review Board if he had subjected his book project to academic and ethical standards.[10]

Leder’s book certainly opens up new dimensions about prisoners and prison life to a white middle class audience that is untouched by persistent criminalization, and readers may find that these men are indeed compassionate, thoughtful, articulate, and not callous monsters. Yet, I worry about other academics who wish to follow Leder’s footsteps, and who find themselves in a classroom full of stubborn men who prefer to talk about the article and not dwell on their own life experiences.

For “outsiders,” prison education is certainly in many ways an opportunity for growth, for doing rewarding community service, for transgressing forbidden spaces and connecting with people who are truly forgotten and discarded. But this trespassing is fraught with problems, indeed for some of us compounded with a “white man’s burden.”[11] The challenge is to resist this ideology and learn from the exemplary work of political prisoners who shed light on injustices and encourage us to think of new forms of organizing to break down those walls, brick by brick.


Abu-Jamal, Mumia. 1995. Live from Death Row. New York: Addison-Wesley.

_______. 1997. Death Blossoms. Farmington, PA: Plough Publishing.

________. 2000. All Things Censored. New York: Seven Stories Press.

Acoli, Sundiata. 1998. An Updated History of the New Afrikan Prison Struggle. Harlem, NY: Sundiata Acoli Freedom Campaign.

Amnesty International. 1999. Not Part of My Sentence: Violations of the Human Rights of Women in Custody. New York, March.

Anonymous. 1999. ‘“WAKE UP!!!” Manifesto’. Cited in “Prisoners Plan a Work Stoppage To Protest Parole Cuts Strike Behind Bars,” Jennifer Gonnerman, Village Voice December 22 - 28, 1999. online

Elijah, Soffiyah Jill. 1995. “Conditions of Confinement-Cruel and Unusual Punishment for Black Political Prisoners.” In Black Prison Movements USA. NOBO, Vol. II (1). Trenton, NJ.: Africa World Press.

Forde, Anton/Trevor Mattis. 2001. Contemplations of a Convict: Aphorisms for the Heart and Mind. Haverford, PA: Infinity Press.

Jackson, George. 1970/1995. Soledad Brother. The Prison Letters of George Jackson. Foreword by Jonathan Jackson, Jr. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books.

James, Joy. 1999. Shadowboxing. NY: St. Martin’s Press.

Julien, Isaac. 1995. Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask. San Francisco, CA: California Newsreel.

Knopp, Faye Honey. 1993. “On Radical Feminism and Abolition.” In We Who Would Take No Prisoners, edited by B. MacLean and Hal Pepinsky. Vancouver: Collective Press.

Leder, Drew. 2000. The Soul Knows No Bars. Inmates Reflect on Life, Death, and Hope. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Mauer, Marc. 1999. The Race to Incarcerate. New York: New Press.

Noel, Peter. 1999. “Mumia’s Last Stand.” The Village Voice, Nov. 10. online.

Prison Research Education Action Project (PREAP). 1976. Instead of Prisons. A Handbook for Abolitionists. Brooklyn, NY: Faculty Press.

Salah-El, Tiyo Attallah. (n.d.) Autobiography of Tiyo Attallah Salah-El. (Revolutionary Vagabond).

_____________. 2000. “Jury Defiance.” The Coalition for the Abolition of Prisons, Inc., Vol.8, March.

Shakur, Abdul O. 1999. Ghetto Criminology: A Brief Analysis of Amerikkka Criminalizing a Race. Daly City, CA: Black Panther Press.

Shakur, Assata. 1987. Assata. An Autobiography. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books.

Sullivan, Dennis, and Larry Tifft. 2001. Restorative Justice. Healing the Foundations of Our Everyday Lives. Monsey, NY: Willow Tree Press.

Suslar, Jan. 2000. “Puerto Rican Political Prisoners.” Radical Philosophy Review, Vol.3(1): 28-40.





*    For discussion and research assistance I am grateful to Tiyo Attallah Salah-El and Joy James. This paper has benefited from comments by Katie Williams and Torry Dickinson.

[1]    The next ICOPA conference will be sponsored by the Prison Moratorium Project in New York City in 2004 ( ICOPA X was held in Nigeria (2002).

[2]    Cf. Marc Mauer’s book The Race to Incarcerate.

[3]    Shaka N’Zinga, A Disjointed Search for the Will to Live (2000).

[4]    Political prisoner not only describes those who are imprisoned for their political associations and beliefs (such as Abu-Jamal, Leonard Peltier, Marilyn Buck, and the Puerto Rican independentistas) but also those who come to prisons because of certain social crimes and become political organizers, e.g., most famously, George Jackson whose assassination by prison guards sparked the Attica Rebellion in 1971.

[5]    Thanks to Olivia Armstrong for suggesting the term sabotage in this context. She participated in a college program in 1976 when she was imprisoned at Bedford Hills, New York. For a brief time the women were furloughed to attend Westchester Community College during the day, but the guards sabotaged the program by contaminating the women’s urine. (The women could only participate if they were found clean of drugs.) The guards’ act of sabotage was later quietly acknowledged by prison administrators to Ms. Armstrong who persevered and received a BSW on the outside and invited top-level officials to her graduation. (personal communication, October 2002)

[6]    Peter Noel, “Mumia’s Last Stand.” in The Village Voice, Nov. 10, 1999, pp. 1-6 (online).

[7]    As Joy James (1999) notes few people know about these women revolutionaries who are serving life sentences for their part in breaking out Assata (89). Baraldini and Rosenberg have since been released.


[8]    Cf. Amy Goodman, Democracy Now, December 16, 1999.

[9]    Instead of Prisons has a wonderful discussion of “The Power of Words” and “Nine Perspectives for Prison Abolitionists” which highlight the ideological dimensions of ‘inmate’ (i.e., prisoner), ‘corrections’ and ‘correctional personnel’, etc. (pp.10).


[10]   All universities and colleges are required to have IRB boards, which were instituted after the Tuskegee experimentation on poor Black men who suffered from syphillis were made public i